Monday, April 23, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Brian Boyle vs. the Lightning: Could the charming prince turn into the Devil on skates?

ONCE UPON A TIME there was a beloved prince of a hockey player who towered over opponents and sacrificed his body for the good of his team. That selflessness and grit endeared him to teammates and fans.

Though the prince did not stay long — less than three seasons — he left an indelible mark.

A photo of his overtime goal against the Islanders in the 2016 playoffs still hangs outside the locker room. Former teammates and fans delight in the retelling of the time he performed the chicken dance while skating to the bench to taunt an opponent who would not fight him.

"You show him, Brian Boyle," Lightning fans yelled.

"We love you, Brian Boyle," they screamed.

Brian Boyle is back in the Lightning's realm but this time as a Devil.

He is a fourth-line center for New Jersey, the second wild card in the Eastern Conference playoffs, which meets the top-seeded Lightning in the best-of-seven first-round series that begins Thursday night at Amalie Arena.

Yes, Boyle has returned to Tampa Bay three times since his February 2017 trade to Toronto — a trade he did not welcome. He came back once as a Maple Leaf and twice as a Devil, with whom he signed as a free agent during the offseason.

The two visits this season were for the All-Star Game — his first — and a February game he did not dress for because of an injury.

He was cheered heartily each time.

RELATED: Brian Boyle was the heartbeat of NHL All-Star weekend

Lightning fans this season voted Boyle one of the top 25 players in franchise history. When his tribute video played during a recent game, the ovation was so loud that it drowned out audio of Boyle thanking the fans.

But Boyle now is in position to deal a season-ending blow to the Lightning and its fans.

Could the charming prince turn into the villain on skates?

How will the Lightning fans react?

"It's hard to boo Brian Boyle," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.

Of course it is. Boyle isn't some turncoat who accepted the adoration, then skipped town for greener pastures.

He is not David Price, standing on the mound at Tropicana Field wearing a Red Sox uniform. Though to be fair to Price, the Rays did trade him and he is now on his third team.

He is not Carl Crawford, who signed with the Red Sox after being an integral part of two division titles and a World Series appearance with the Rays. Though to be fair to Crawford, the Rays did not try to re-sign him, and who in his right mind turns down $142 million?

"In the end, it's Lightning blue, that's what everybody's heart bleeds in this town," Cooper said of Boyle.

And fans in the Tampa Bay Times' Lightning Strikes! Facebook group agree.

Alexander Pegac of Austria: "Love Boyle, but this is playoff hockey!"

Jamie Kaufman of Largo: "Respected but he plays for the enemy."

Bridgitt Marlow: "I still love him, but business is business. GO BOLTZ."

So, to quote Bashful in Snow White: "It's not personal, Sonny. It's strictly business."

But that's not to say Boyle will be booed — unless "he injures, or attempts to injure, one of our Bolts," Carl Wagenfohr of Tarpon Springs says.

• • •

Boyle is one of the NHL's feel-good stories this season. He was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia — a rare blood-cell cancer that originates in bone marrow — before the start of training camp. He missed the Devils' first 10 games, then needed another five before scoring his first goal for the team. His next goal came on the Devils' "Hockey Fights Cancer Night."

He almost turned down his addition to the All-Star Game roster because his son, Declan, 2, was in a Boston hospital after his latest surgery for arteriovenous malformation, a rare condition that disrupts normal blood flow and oxygen circulation.

Boyle and wife Lauren have endured a lot this season.

Through it all, Boyle has been that rock of a veteran the Devils sought to help guide a young team that finished dead last in the league last season. Surrounding Boyle's locker in the Devils' home dressing room are the team's young stars, players who can learn from Boyle's example.

Because that is who Boyle is: a blue-collar, carries-his-work-pail-to-lunch grinder who leads with his actions and the occasional word if he thinks a teammate is not getting the message.

It worked in Tampa Bay, where he helped take the Lightning to the Stanley Cup final in 2016 and the Eastern Conference final a year later.

Lauren and Brian found a home here amid the sun and sand. They did not want to pick up those roots when he was traded to the Maple Leafs and asked to do in Toronto what he did in Tampa Bay and now is doing in New Jersey: be the X factor on a young team.

Now Boyle's aim is to do all he can to add another chapter to the Devils' fairy-tale season.

"We believe in ourselves," he told reporters in New Jersey this week. "We know it's the best against the best now. It's something we're excited about. We have the ultimate confidence."

The Devils' chances of winning rest with top scorer Taylor Hall and white-hot goalie Keith Kinkaid.

But that does not mean Boyle cannot have a moment or two that make the fans in blue gasp.

And what will the reaction be then?

"Honestly," wrote Lightning season ticket holder Stephanie Lanes in a text message to the Times, "while I would be sad and upset we lost the series, I couldn't be happier for a guy who deserves so much after going through everything he had to this year!

"No matter who he plays for, he will always be a Bolt to me!"

The end.Contact Roger Mooney at [email protected] Follow @rogermooney50.

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